Charlie's a semi-legend around here.

He's an ace bird dog, one of the best any of the hunters in these parts has seen. Charlie - we all call him Chuck - has what they call a "soft mouth", meaning that when he grabs a bird he never crushes it, never even musses a feather. Pheasants fetched by Charlie are brought back in utterly pristine condition; ducks whole and succulent; doves perfect and shimmering.

Charlie's a black labrador, a truly handsome animal. He has a massive, noble head, vast paws, intelligent fathomless brown eyes. He's nearly eight years old now, and his joints are starting to stiffen; labradors tend to have joint problems, and it's sad to see that Chuck's succumbing to a nasty breed trait. Even though he's slowing down a bit, Chuck's still the best bird dog around. He fetches sticks with tireless, insane abandon, barrel chest heaving, baying like a pup. He's a special dog by any standard.

My dad tells a story about Charlie. It seems that a few years back when Charlie was around two years old, some plovers were ground-nesting in the back acreage of the property. The mother birds spent all their time fussing over their fluffy broods, anxiously herding their flightless babies, trying to keep a semblance of order. But one of the babies ventured a little too close to Chuck.

A lesser dog would have looked at that little bird as an amuse bouche. Not Chuck. Chuck decided to take the little guy for a ride.

Yep, you read that right. With my dad looking on in slack-jawed amazement, Chuck took the baby bird for a swim.

Chuck scooped the little guy up into his big grinning velvety jaws, trotted down to his beloved Snake River, and paddled about for ten minutes or so. He was an enthusiastic tour guide, a Labradorian gondolier.

After he'd swum around in a few wide, joyous circles, Chuck lunged out of the water, black coat streaming and glistening. He considerately set the baby plover down for a moment while he gave himself a good nose-to-tail shake, re-scooped the bird, then loped over to the exact nest from which the baby bird had wandered. He tenderly deposited his tiny passenger (ignoring the squawks of the mama bird), gave it a nudge with his giant nose, and released it into the care of its frantic mother.

So yeah, that's Chuck.

Gentle and soulful as Chuck may be, around here he's still "just" a working dog. Until this hunting season, Charlie was given the same treatment as any other working dog. He has a nice big kennel with a good-sized run, lots of snuggly bedding and old flannel shirts to keep him warm on those bitter winter nights.

But my aunt and uncle were out of town for quite a few weeks this summer, and Charlie got lonely. He'd accompany my dad on the general rounds - lawn mowing, garden watering, fence mending. He'd hop into the back of Dad's pickup for runs to the local grocery store, his oversized pink tongue lolling in the breeze, his soft mouth peeled back against the wind in an ecstatic dog-grin.

He was supposed to spend the nights in his kennel. During hunting season Chuck has to stay in that kennel constantly, because if he hears a shotgun he's off to the races. He's hardwired to hunt, and nothing - aside, perhaps, from stick-fetching - gets his sap rising quite like the sound of gunshot.

But it was summertime, and no hunters were out. A quiet unanimous decision was made to allow Chuck to spend his nights where he chose to spend them. And Chuck had Ideas.

Chuck wanted to spend his nights inside, with us.

After two or three evenings under the carport, Chuck made his wishes known in his characteristically polite way. Charlie knocked.

I was sitting here at the computer late one evening - had to be around one AM. Suddenly, I head a distinct, methodical "thump...thump...thump" at the back sliding glass door. Thinking my sister had come down to visit, I pushed my chair back and headed to the door. Peering into the black desert night didn't yield any sign of a late night visitor, so I went back to finish typing my email.

Before I could sit down, there it was again, more insistent this time: "THUMP...thump...THUMP."

Now I was getting kinda creeped out, so I crept to the doorway of my parents' bedroom and tapped. "Yeah, what is it, Ash?" My father sounded sleepy and a little annoyed.

I explained to him that a possible axe murderer was attempting to gain entrance; would he please discourage it?

Dad muttered something colorful under his breath that elicited a muffled giggle from Mom. After a moment or two he emerged from his cave, blinking in the halflight of the hallway. This time he heard it too: "THUMP...THUMP...THUMP!"

Dad looked comically puzzled for the barest moment, then the light dawned. "Oh hell, Ash, that's just Chuck!"

"Chuck?" I said. "But...he's...he's knocking!"

"Yeah, yeah he is," Dad said as he meditatively rubbed his stubbly chin. "He does that sometimes at the wood shop, too." Dad grinned. "He's a gentleman, Chuck is."

Dad headed over to the door and slid it open. Chuck, perfectly camouflaged by the darkness, sat politely on the threshold awaiting a formal invitation. "Well, sir," said Dad mock-sternly, "If I let you in, you gonna be a good boy?" Chuck thumped his tail enthusiastically, fixed my father in a liquid gaze, and raised one enormous dextrous paw in response. Dad sighed, powerless in the face of such a courtly display.

"Okay, Chuckers. C'mon in."

Charlie gathered himself, stretched langorously, and with great Labradorian dignity padded across the room to a spot beside the wood-burning stove. He curled himself into what I'm sure he considered to be an unobtrusive ball and fell asleep immediately, snoring gently.

And that's how Chuck became an indoor beastie.

He's graduated from the hearth. Now he likes to hang out at my feet - more specifically, on my feet. But it's a win-win proposition, really. I've always been a cat person, but that was before I realized how warm my feet are beneath an 80-pound black lab furnace. And Charlie? Well, he gets to rest his arthritic old bones inside a warm house for the winter.

I keep some special chicken rawhide strips on the computer desk. Chuck's my new buddy, and I try to spoil my friends. My uncle teases me, says I'm making Chuck soft, but I don't care a whit. Chuck's here right now, snoring peacefully atop my feet. I have a fat tabby cat on my lap, a giant labrador snoozing on my feet, a bottle of good stout, and stories to tell.

Winter's coming, but it won't be as lonely as the last one was. This time I'll have a gentlemanly, patient presence to keep my feet warm and toasty - a friendly, doe-eyed writer's companion.

Things could be much worse. Sometimes - like tonight - I don't see how they could be much better.

Some footnotes in my life:

- Starting next week, I'll be working the graveyard shift. In at 9PM, out at 5:30AM. Actually, for the past couple years I've had difficulty going to sleep earlier than two or three in the morning, and the past week or so I've been wide awake til about five anyhow, so this works out pretty well for me. That said, I wouldn't have gone for it if it weren't for the fact that the night differential will increase my wage by nearly 50%.

- I got banned from the Penny Arcade forums yesterday. I'd been a pretty active member there for about 18 months. I'll spare you all the gory details, but the upshot is this: In making fun of the concept of "homebrew" for the Sony PSP (which as far as I can tell is 90% emulators), I made a comment to the effect of, "I just love playing illegal Nintendo ROMs on my PSP." Several people of dubious intelligence got the impression that I was in earnest, including a mod, who promptly banned me. He also deleted the comment I made, so that there was no way for any other mods to know the specifics of what I had said. ...Huh. So much for sparing you the details. When I think about it, though, it may all be for the best. I spent entirely too much time on those forums. The very fact that this whole affair has upset me so much is a bad sign.

- I've begun reading Halspal's book, Humane Society. He sent me a copy of it quite a while ago - probably over a year ago at this point. I kinda feel bad that it's taken me this long to get to it. What I've read so far is pretty good, though I have difficulty believing much of it is based on true events, let alone grounded in them.

- My birthday is less than a month away: November 1st. I wish I could say I was looking forward to it. All it really is to me is a reminder that I've wasted another year of my life.

A Grim Look at GPS Health

The Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite constellation consists of 24 satellites (plus spares) in orbit 20,200 km above the earth, in 12-hour sun-synchronous orbits. GPS is becoming synonymous for the method by which position (latitude/longitude) and time is determined. The GPS system has cost US $ 12 billion, and every year the United States Department of Defense spends US $750 million for maintenance and modernization of this system.

GPS satellites have lifetimes on the order of 7-10 years. They must be replenished in order to keep the full set of satellites in their respective positions in orbit.

The GPS constellation places satellites in orbit in very precise ways in order to maximize the number of satellites in view of your GPS receiver. There must be at least 4 healthy satellites in each of 6 orbital planes before the constellation is declared fully operational.

GPS is becoming a cornerstone of the US high techology economy, every bit as important to the economic well being of the US and other high tech countries as the Internet. It is no longer conceivable to imagine a future without GPS.

I've worked at the periphery of the GPS satellite system for the bulk of my career as a satellite and communications systems engineer. For some reason I thought the GPS system was running quite well and was relatively impervious to the entropic forces at work within the DoD and Congressional budgetary cycles, which permit healthy systems to decay into uselessness. It appears I was wrong. The following letter appeared in the most recent issue of Aviation Week & Space Technology, the most authoritative magazine of its kind in the space industry. From the tone of the letter, it is evident that its author is intimately acquainted with the GPS program and its most current state of affairs.

The letter is, quite frankly, a wakeup call. I have shown it to several members of staff at work who work on GPS daily. The reactions ranged from mild bemusement to deep shock. They were unaware of the problem. I therefore have to believe that very few people outside of the satellite community know about this problem, and would like to begin making more technically oriented people aware of it.

I reprint this letter in full in the hopes that the many cognizent supporters of this critical system within the DoD and the government urge the U.S. White House and Congress to make this a high priority item in the next budgetary review cycle.

The language is highly technical. I have attempted to explain a few critical items in footnotes below the letter. However, the letter reads best unadorned, which is why I have left it exactly as written. Space cognizenti will recognize the true seriousness of the health of GPS.

In "New Trajectory" (AW&ST, Sept. 12, p. 55), Col. Allan Ballenger, the GPS program manager, talks a lot about GPS modernization. But I hope he has enough GPS space vehicles (SVs) to provide the "24/7" coverage we have come to expect.

GPS has become a utility for military and civil users that needs four healthy SVs each in six different orbital planes. Late last month, the B plane had only three operational SVs, while SV35A switched to its last clock. For the first time in a long time, there was a hole in the world's GPS coverage. Imagine finally finding Osama bin Laden, calling for a JDAM but being told to wait for the hole to pass over you.

There are few on-orbit spares, many SVs have lost their redundant systems, and the loss of all the GPS II/IIA SVs (18 units, all past their design life) is expected over the next 2-3 years as their aging solar arrays fail. A GPS Joint Program Office official provided enough informationat a forum last March in Munich to forecast the magnitude of this issue. Eighteen known failures are coming, but only eight IIR/R-M replacements are available. Let's hope the IIF SV program stays on schedule.

Instead of making fancy plans for modernization, Ballenger should be launching SVs on a regular basis to replace the SVs with multiple faults before they completely fail and to fill up the orbital planes with robust on-orbit spares. But there has not been a GPS launch since November 2004.

And take a hard look at the near-term "modernization." The IIR-Ms were supposed to have L2 Civil Navigation capability, but have taken exception to the Interface Control Document for those signals, so where is the improvement? Work on versions 6.0 and 6.1 of the control segment has stopped. But that work is necessary for the new civil signals and military M-code. Even if the IIR-Ms work as advertised, the control segment won't support the new signals.

Ballenger needs to get his priorities straight and spend his $750-million budget wisely. A fundamental rule for managing a utility is to keep the service available for the users, then worry about improving it.

Mark Bradshaw
Lake Forest, Calif.

Explanatory Notes

  • Design Life Every GPS satellite has a predicted lifetime of about 8 years. In the past, satellites have been designed so carefully that the actual lifetime is almost double the design lifetime.
  • Clock Redundancy Each GPS satellite carries triple redundant atomic clocks on board. (A mixture of cesium and rubidium clocks are used.) These offer very stable time standards, with accuracies of parts per billion. Several other very critical portions of the satellite also have redundant backup capabilities.
  • Known Failures How can you know that a satellite will fail, and how can you predict its failure date? Sensors on board a satellite keep track of the amount of current coming from solar panels, for example. Downlink telemetry signals tell ground stations the health and status of key satellite subsystems. Extrapolation of decreasing current with time enables SV engineers to predict when the solar panels will no longer provide enough electrical current to keep the satellite fully operational. (Solar panels degrade with constant exposure to the sun's energetic rays by causing silicon crystal lattices to degrade. Lattice imperfections cause subtle current leakages through normally insulative silicon dioxide.) If they can't switch over to a redundant subsystem, the satellite is declared to have failed. Prediction of SV failure is a well known art among satellite engineers.
  • Signals GPS satellites broadcast a variety of signals. The most basic sets can be used by any civilian GPS receiver. Military codes have much less clock jitter and therefore give much more accurate lat/long readings,but can only be used by military GPS receivers with the proper decryption mechanisms.
  • On Orbit Spares It takes much less fuel to move a replacement satellite to another orbital slot within the same orbital plane than it does for the satellite to be moved to a different orbital plane and then 'walk' through the orbital plane to get to the correct slot. Therefore, it becomes critically important to have each orbital plane populated with a few replacement satellites.

Copyright Notice: I have requested permission to reprint this letter in its entirety from the editors of AW&ST. If they do not grant permission, I will remove this writeup.

Sources and Helpful Background Information:

Walking through the schoolhouse, I stopped by our administration office and glanced at the headline of the Navy Times out this week. There, printed on the front page, was a headline: War, Gore, and Porn.

Thinking that this might be something to get worked up over (and for lack of anything better to do,) I elected to plop a squat and read.

The gist of it is that there is a nameless website out there on your Internets that allows people with the requisite materials to submit photos of the dead in Iraq in exchange for free access to porn.

‘Well,’ I thought, ‘that’s just great. Fucking wonderful, of all the stupid shit we could do that about takes the cake.’

A year ago I was standing in a hanger in Norfolk, Virginia watching some brass hat babble on about this and that during a change of command ceremony. If you have ever had to stand (us non-members of the Knife and Fork School Graduates Club get to stand in the back) through one of these things I think you know what I am talking about. In fact, I imagine you sitting at your computer and reading these words with a faint smug grin.

For the uninitiated among you, changes of command are ceremonies in which we get all duded up and then stand there listening to the mucky-mucks slap one another on the back. There is usually some funny ha-ha joke that they tell and laugh at for effect. In the corporate world, one might be inclined to say that they kiss each other’s asses for upwards of ninety minutes.

So here we have exhibit A: Commander Helicopter Support Wing Atlantic standing on a podium, orating away in grand style. Maximum blah-blah-blah, minimum discernable point. He is about halfway through his little speech, when this comes out of his mouth:

"...and I want you to take a moment to remember our troops and sailors in Iraq right now, doing God’s work..."

At which point a very loud and incredulous WHAT rings out from the back of the assembled squids. There is a brief pause, people in the seated, official audience, turn around and look toward the source of the interruption. Someone coughs. The Commodore picks up where he left off despite having the applecart of momentum abruptly upset.

Actually, it was kicked the fuck over. I would like to confess that my foot did not hurt in the slightest for having executed said maneuver.

Meanranch, back at the while, I am flipping through the Navy Times, looking for the Porn and Gore article. At the bottom of the third page (as there has been since the war started) is a row of pictures of the recently deceased Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen.

Am I to understand that they were killed in the name of God? Perhaps for Boobies, instead?

I would say that it was probably for media and approval polls. After all, what is better for ratings than a good war?

The insurgents cut people’s heads off, slap propaganda at the bottom and call it a victory over the American Imperialists and the Great Satan of the West. The army of Iraqi liberation takes pictures of whatever it is it happens to run over, blasts some snappy commentary onto the bottom and is rewarded with some Recreational Training Material.

I am told by my betters that I am to accept the war as a part of the Global Struggle Against Things Which We Find Unacceptable to Discuss at the Dinner Table, and Finish Your Peas. I am told that we are doing the Work of The Lord, and for that I should rejoice and sing Hosannas in the highest.

None of us work for god. The insurgents don’t. Neither do we.

God, I think, is staying out of this one. This has progressed to the point where it is too fucked up, even for Him.

If that is the case, then I hope that someone is at least watching out for everyone over there: American, Britain, Italian, Japanese, and insurgent.

So sir, if there ever was a time for a miracle, now is it. You did loaves and fishes, water into wine, parting of the Red Sea, burning shrubbery, big booming voices from the sky, and a failed ban on bacon. Perhaps you might be able to turn M-16 and RPG-7, M249 and IED, into wiffle ball bats? Please?

Just a half dozen, maybe to prove a point? Tell you what: you’ve got no balls if you don’t.

If media monoculture is the new black, then Iraq is the new Vietnam. God help us all.

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